Jennifer Porat, PhD

Written by: Julieta Rivosecchi, PhD

Dr. Jennifer Porat, a postdoctoral research fellow in Dr. Ryan Flynn’s lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University in Boston, USA, is exploring the fascinating biology of a newly discovered family of RNAs: glycoRNAs. By investigating how they are transferred to the surface of the cell and elucidating their function(s),  Dr. Porat’s research aims to unravel the mysteries of these glycosylated, cell membrane-bound RNAs. She is  excited to be contributing meaningfully to such a new field where nearly all the questions are unanswered. Her current work centers on developing techniques to isolate, sequence, and/or visualize RNA on the cell surface. She believes that glycoRNAs are a burgeoning field with the potential to bring “new biological insights and paradigm shifting findings and concepts” to the RNA world.

Dr. Porat finds that RNA research is at the confluence of all her scientific interests. During her PhD studies, her thesis work focused on understanding a group of unique yeast RNAs, such as U6 and telomerase RNA, in Mark Bayfield’s lab at York University in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Porat recognizes the importance of yeast genetics for understanding of fundamental RNA biology and highlights specific aspects of yeast RNAs that she found fascinating during her work. For example, “U6 from certain yeast species contains an mRNA-type intron that needs to be spliced before U6 can function in splicing, and the fission yeast telomerase RNA undergoes a really fascinating end processing pathway that involves a non-canonical splicing event”.

What impressed Dr. Porat during the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology courses led by Dr. Bayfield was the passion and excitement he conveyed during the lectures, and his efforts to introduce “real science” by mentioning foundational discoveries and the scientists behind them. Dr. Porat recalls: “That contributed to my understanding that science was done by real people and that if I wanted to, I could become one of those people”. During her graduate studies, Dr. Porat actively participated in the Girls SySTEM Mentorship program, which guided high school students towards a career in STEM. This experience, Dr. Porat explains, “solidified my own career goals of wanting to become a professor so that I can (hopefully!) continue mentoring others and share my excitement about science”. Dr. Porat also dedicated part of her PhD time to mentoring students and assisting in undergraduate courses.

Besides her love for exploring the unknown that typifies students early in their research career, Dr. Porat admits that graduate school can be difficult. She offers two precious pieces of advice to starting graduate students when facing failed experiments or rejected fellowship applications. First, Dr. Porat suggests to “celebrate the small wins like making it through to the end of a really tough protocol, a particularly beautiful gel, or microscopy image”. Second, she advises to “move from a competitive mindset to a more collaborative one. Even the small things—sharing protocols and advice, checking in with each other, celebrating each other’s accomplishments—can make the experience more rewarding and a lot less isolating.” In identifying how to empower young, and in particular female students, Dr. Porat draws inspiration from three distinguished RNA scientists: Joan Steitz, newly-minted Nobel Laureate Katalin Kariko, and Christine Guthrie. Dr. Porat sees them as “women who faced tremendous pushback and doubt about what we now appreciate as truly ground-breaking science, and yet they continued working on the science they believed was important, even when it seemed like much of the scientific community was against them”.

“Move from a competitive mindset to a more collaborative one. Even the small things—sharing protocols and advice, checking in with each other, celebrating each other’s accomplishments—can make the experience more rewarding and a lot less isolating.”

When Dr. Porat started her postdoc, she faced a big change. “I went from a smaller lab where I knew the ins and outs of my projects, where everything was in the lab, and had my days and experiments planned down to the minute, to a much larger institution where, although I was still working with RNA, everything I was doing was completely new to me”, Dr. Porat says. During this transition period, she experienced imposter syndrome. She emphasizes that “scientists, particularly academics, tend to talk about imposter syndrome in very vague terms. We acknowledge that it’s something common and that many of us experience, but very few people share details of how impostor syndrome made them feel and/or what triggered it. Because of this, when I first started my postdoc, I was convinced that I was the only one feeling lost, very much out of my depth, and not generating data fast enough.” Dr. Porat explains that “I spent the first few weeks convinced that everyone would soon discover that I really had no idea what I was doing”. Thanks to the support of postdocs and professors who shared their own struggles when transitioning to their next career stages, she now realizes that, although they were difficult, those feelings of vulnerability and self-doubt were both common and normal. She now knows that career transitions, such as the beginning stage of a postdoc, are learning experiences and require a progressive and adaptive approach. Fortunately, she is now feeling more comfortable with the new lab, the new protocols, and her new routine.

Dr. Porat is an active RNA Society member. She has attended RNA Society meetings virtually and has engaged in several initiatives. As part of the RNA Society Spotlight team, Dr. Porat had the opportunity to interact with many scientists who not only shared their stories, but also offered her advice and reassurance during the beginning of her postdoc. “I would definitely recommend that trainees at all stages join one of the RNA Society’s outreach committees.”  In addition, she participated in the RNA Society’s mentorship program during which she benefited from Dr. Steitz’s mentorship, one of the scientists that inspired her from the early days of her PhD. Dr. Porat enthusiastically affirms: “I can say that it was truly an amazing experience and would wholeheartedly recommend it!”

In addition to her research, Dr. Porat is passionate about reading science fiction, a hobby that has shaped the way she communicates her science in both written and oral presentations, as she tries to frame her ideas as stories. She balances her work in the lab with running sessions, which she finds helpful to relieve the stress and an opportunity to come up with new ideas.

In line with her love for reading, Dr. Porat appreciates a well-written article, such as the papers from Rissland Lab, which are not only a pleasure to read but are also scientifically rigorous, according to Dr. Porat. As an example, she mentions this work on translational regulation, published in the RNA Journal. In her view, the Hentze lab’s paper on vault RNAs which shed light on the function of these mysterious cytoplasmic ribonucleoproteins transcribed by RNA polymerase III is another great article from the RNA Journal.

Dr. Porat doesn’t have a ‘favorite RNA’, rather she is captivated by RNA diversity. For example, she's intrigued by the cloverleaf structure and numerous modifications of tRNAs; how U6 RNA can be heavily modified and catalytic at the same time; and naturally, by glycoRNAs, since most of their chemistry and function are still unknown.